Expertise for the Future: Histories of environmental prediction and policy


This Project is a cross-cutting thematic project that focuses on the history of the idea of environmental prediction, and the reception of predictions by societies.


Project description

This project was initiated in 2009, with a focus on the international development of environmental prediction since the sixteenth century, bringing together perspectives from the history of science, sociological and communication studies, and the social, cultural and political history of the environment. It examines how authoritative narratives and specific claims developed in the context of scientific discourse, fieldwork, and methodologies; how environmental objects of study were constructed and valued; how particular trajectories were adopted by ‘experts’, disciplinary communities, policymakers, activists and a wider public in relation to their explanatory power, their social and political resonance, their degree of verifiability, and their insertion into observable historical trends. How did particular techniques of observation (from field sites to conservation zones to planetary systems) or forms of data (such as instrumental measurements, resource prices, local knowledge, and human memory) work to shape the ways we think about the future? How important were institutional structures, geopolitics, funding, and aesthetics to the framing of environmental ‘problems’ and solutions?

As a part of the international scoping activities, a series of invitational workshops addressing histories of resource use and fears of scarcity; demography and epidemiology; climate science; conservation; deforestation; and the international exchange of ideas and technology.

  • 22-23 July 2009 University of East Anglia, UK.
  • 16-17 November 2009 Centre for the Environment, Harvard University, USA
  • 7 May 2010 Australian National University in Canberra, Australia.
  • 1 December 2010 Stockholm Resilience Centre, Sweden.

In addition project presentations were made through panels at the American Society for Environmental History (ASEH) conferences in Portland, Oregon, 2010, Phoenix Arizona 2011, Madison, Wisconsin 2012 and Toronto, Canada 2013. There was also a panel at the European Society for Environmental History (ESEH) Turku, Finland 2011, and Munich Germany 2013.

Paul Warde and Sverker Sörlin presented ‘Expertise for the Future: the Emergence of ‘Relevant Knowledge’ in Environmental Predictions and Global Change, c.1920-1970’, at the European Social Science and History Conference, in Glasgow in April 2012. The publication ‘The Future of Nature: Documents of Global Change’ will be avalibe from October 2013.

At present the project is working with ‘The Environment: A History’

Background: The rise of environmental prediction is commonly associated with the ‘ecological revolution’ of the 1960s, that saw the development of Environmental Protection Agencies, and the interventions of non-governmental activists from the scientific and wider community, in the publishing of landmark reports whether on a formal institutionalised basis or not (such as the ‘Club of Rome’ or the Brundtland Commission), and political responses to the perceived potential or actuality of environmental degradation. This is often represented as the colonisation of policymaking by ‘expert’ opinion bringing the increased authority of the environmental sciences into the political domain. There are parallels to developments in other policy areas (finance, labour markets, military, foreign relations etc.), but in environment policy (under that very name) the influence of expert opinion has been less challenged by popular or established common views, and scientific expertise has conferred greater popular legitimacy.

Yet the wider social and political role of environmental prediction has a far longer history. Narratives of potential degradation (for example, timber famines) have played a prominent role in government action in Europe since the fifteenth century. Interventions at first appealed to general observations for legitimacy. A significant development over time has been the displacement of intuitivemethods by mathematical methods including tools to analyse longitudinal data trends and statistical modelling remote from everyday experience and often including future scenarios. There has been little analysis of this succession and whether it was actually rooted in successful prediction itself, or in the inherent greater plausibility of the data. Sociologists including Ulrich Beck have drawn attention to the paradox that the legitimacy of political action increasingly rests upon scientific authority at a time when scientific practice has moved towards an increasingly reflexive and probabilistic sensibility in the interpretation of complex models.


Key Publications

2013. The Future of Nature: Documents of Global Change. Robin, Sörlin, Warde (editors). Yale University Press.

In prep. The Environment: A History Warde, Sörlin, Robin (editors). Expected publication date 2015.


Participants and Affiliated Institutions

Paul Warde (Centre for History and Economics, Cambridge and University of East Anglia)

Sverker Sörlin (KTH Environmental Humanities Laboratory, Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm)

Libby Robin (Australian National University)